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The Life of Duke Ellington: An American Original

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 26, 2023 3:00 am

The Life of Duke Ellington: An American Original

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 26, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, some believe he was the most important composer of the 20th century, in or out of jazz. Terry Teachout, one of America's best culture writers and author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, tells the story of the jazz legend, his music, his struggles, his triumphs and so much more.

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Am I right? It feels like our bodies are working against us, pushing back on our progress. We lose weight and our bodies try to gain it right back. Sure, losing weight is challenging, but keeping the weight off is just as hard. In fact, people with excess weight generally make seven serious attempts at weight loss.

Seven. But guess what? It's not all our fault. And we have the science to back it up. One study shows that by partnering with health care providers, it may be possible to lose up to five times as much weight compared to trying to do it solo. Together, you can develop a plan to manage your weight and the impact of weight-related health issues, like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Talk to a health care provider and ask if FDA-approved medicine could help with losing weight and maintaining the results.

Learn more about the science behind the weight loss at truthaboutweight.com. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show. And our favorite subject is music. And our second favorite is history. And this next, well, this next hour combines both with one of America's very best cultural writers and one of our best music writers. Today, we're here to talk to Terry Teachout about the book Duke, Life of Duke Ellington, who was born in Washington, DC in 1899.

Terry, thanks for joining us. Talk about where Duke Ellington was born. And he was born, of course, in 1899 in Washington, DC. Talk about the effect and the impact that location had on his life. Washington DC, in Ellington's childhood and youth, was one of the most ruthlessly segregated cities in America. It was, you might say, the northern tip of the Deep South. But it had a large, healthy, prosperous black middle class, a black bourgeoisie at the same time. That is what defines the Washington of Ellington's youth and the neighborhood he grew up in, U Street. It was a place where you lived, if you could afford to, and in the alley, if you couldn't afford to, where every kind of black person, well-to-do and poor, striving and desperate, they were all thrown together.

It was tremendously vital. But it was a society that in its own class divisions mirrored the class divisions of the white world. There was a racial caste system among blacks.

It had to do with economics. It also had to do with skin color. And Duke Ellington came from light-skinned parents, parents who had white blood in them.

His mother had a senator in her heritage. And this put them several rungs up the ladder. So you had a society of strivers, but you also had a society of people who were very self-conscious about their place in class.

It might have looked on from the outside. Ellington's father was considered pretty far up on the ladder of success because he was the butler of a white doctor. And so he acquired class identity and a patina of elegance from this very affiliation. And it's something, I think, that Ellington himself may have had equivocal feelings about. On the one hand, he was himself very class conscious. And he was a person who was inclined for his black friends to be people with light skin and for his mistresses to be women with light skin. At the same time, though, he believed deeply in the self-improvement ethos. That is why he was determined to make something of himself something important. His mother had told him right from the beginning of his life, you are gifted. You are special.

You are going to do remarkable things. And Ellington never doubted her. Well, actually, she used the word Ellingtonian exceptionalism.

My goodness. She was dead serious about it. And Freud said that a boy who has the absolute approval of his mother is destined for success. If that's true, Duke Ellington had the pedigree going in.

And good for him. Let's get now to Duke Ellington's musical journey. Tell us about that. Well, you become interested in music because you hear it, and it's beautiful, and you become transported by it. And then you start to think, well, maybe I could do that.

Maybe I can make that. But with Ellington, it seems to have been the actual act of performance, of getting his hands on the keyboard and hearing the kind of music he wanted to play that excited him. He'd taken a few piano lessons as a child from a woman named, believe it or not, Clinkscales. It's a true story.

We had to track that down in the census records, but it's absolutely true. But they didn't stick with him because she wasn't teaching him what he wanted to hear. It was when he heard Ragtime and a little bit later, early jazz, that he heard a kind of music that spoke to him. And he came back to the piano. He started playing with it, tinkering with it, realized that he could play it.

And that was when it all began. And from what I understand, Terry, Ellington found some inspirations early on that greatly influenced him. Who was Harvey Brooks? Tell us a bit more about him.

Harvey Brooks was, I believe, based in Philadelphia. He was a late Ragtime, early stride pianist. He's not well-remembered today because he didn't make very many recordings. But he did make piano rolls. Ellington heard one early on. Being from a family of the Black bourgeoisie, Ellington was not the sort of person who was likely to grow up hearing Ragtime or that kind of popular music that was going around at the time. When he heard Harvey Brooks, he was stunned by how exciting the music was and how personal, how individual it was, how a personality was projected through the playing. He was determined to learn how to make that kind of music. That was really what pushed the button that made Ellington want to be a musician. He had originally intended to be an artist, a commercial artist, and he had real talent in that area. But when he heard this kind of music and realized that you could go out on a bandstand, play music like that, people would hear it and know it was you and that women would flock around the bandstand because they found that very sexy.

And of course, he discovered very quickly that it wasn't just a matter of his being interested, that he also had innate talent for it. And it was Harvey Brooks who started him down that line, so much so that Ellington actually sought him out a couple of years later and Brooks showed him some of the tricks of the trade. And he makes his way up to New York and this is as the budding of the great Harlem Renaissance is, well, it's about to come, but how does he make his way to New York and what role did the 1919 race riots in Washington play in that, if any? The race riots of 1919 had an overwhelming effect on Washington DC. They were violent, they were shocking, they caused a lot of black people to realize just how fragile their lives were.

And it seems impossible that they wouldn't have had that kind of effect on Ellington. He had already been hearing musicians from outside Washington. He knew there was more to the music that interested him, the music that excited him than he was hearing in Washington.

And he must also have realized that if you wanted to get somewhere, if you wanted to be more than just a famous local musician, at this point in the history of jazz, you were going to have to come to New York. And when we come back, more with Terry Teachout and the story of Duke Ellington here on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters.

Go to our American stories.com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming. That's our American stories.com For NFL teams to conference championship games and only a few more shots to win big on the playoffs with DraftKings Sportsbook and official sports betting partner of the NFL counting down to Super Bowl 57. New customers can bet just $5 and get $200 in free bets instantly. Download the DraftKings Sportsbook app and use promo code TIMER. New customers can bet $5 on the conference championships and get 200 in free bets instantly. Only at DraftKings Sportsbook with promo code TIMER. 21 and over in most eligible states but age varies by jurisdiction.

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Once again, that's 855-933-5252. And we continue here with our American stories and Terry Teachout on the life of Duke Ellington. Terry, let's talk about the importance of the 1920s. The Roaring Twenties are a cliche.

They're movies, they're scenes and TV shows. We have this idea of what they were like. But the cliche was true. The country was completely turned inside out by prohibition and the resulting lawlessness that stemmed from it by the sense of personal freedom that people sought, especially men coming back from the First World War, coming back from Europe.

You remember the song, How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm, after they've seen Paree. Well, that was what the Roaring Twenties meant to people. They wanted a larger life, one that had fewer restrictions, fewer limitations. They wanted excitement.

Many of them wanted city life and the things that only a city can provide. It is in cities that jazz came to be because they had dance halls and they had cabarets and they had bars and they had gangsters who wanted music to be played while they were selling their illegal liquor. And it was just the word, ferment, I don't mean the pun. There was a tremendous cultural ferment going on right then, not just in music, but in every form of art. And America became a major center for this ferment. We had major visual artists, we had major novelists, we had major classical composers, and we had, of course, the distinctive form of music that gives its name to the period, jazz.

If you weren't stimulated by that, then there was nothing in you to be stimulated. And Ellington was stimulated to the highest degree by this freedom. He, as we talked about earlier, was brought up as part of the Bloc bourgeoisie. He believed in the appearance of respectability, but he also wanted to lead a wider, freer life. And the 20s were the best time in the world, maybe in the history of America, to have been able to do that.

He was in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. Let's talk about the Cotton Club and its connection to Ellington's rise to prominence. And by the way, your description of the place itself, Terry, it could be its own book.

I was just enthralled. Well, it was quite a joint, and it was produced by racial segregation. In Harlem, there were a number of clubs that did not admit blacks. They were entertainers, they were waiters, they were part of the staff, but they couldn't come in as customers. They were places where white people from downtown who had money to burn came up to entertain themselves, to discover this new exotic music called jazz. The Cotton Club was probably the best known of these places.

Decorated in the style of a plantation, what a horrible irony. To have gotten that gig was a big deal for Ellington, not just because it was a high-profile gig, but because suddenly he was playing every night at a club where his band had to supply a lot of music, not just songs, not just original pieces, but music for dancing, music for floor shows. Suddenly, Duke Ellington had to produce.

He was on the spot. And the Cotton Club took what he produced and made it known to New Yorkers with money who talked about it and wrote about it. He first got into print in the New Yorker for performing at the Cotton Club, and he made records of the music that he played there. And of the highest importance, he broadcast on network radio from there.

It was one of the biggest breaks of his life when CBS installed a broadcast wire to the Cotton Club in 1929. Up to this moment, Duke Ellington had been making records for some time. He was known to jazz aficionados. But suddenly, all you had to do to hear Duke Ellington at his very best was turn your radio on at night, and there he was.

He called this his biggest break, and I think he was absolutely right to say so. It was what made him, in a single stroke, a national figure, and a black national figure. There had not been black bands with this kind of exposure on network radio. Remember too, this is in 1929, when suddenly there's no money. It's the Great Depression. The bottom falls out of the record business because people can't afford to buy records.

But you could afford to listen to the radio because it didn't cost anything. That was what made Ellington a star. Louis Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind. And Duke Ellington's mind was very much a prepared mind when he went into the Cotton Club in 1929. It forced him to work harder as a composer.

It really tested his mettle, but he passed the test. Let's talk about the music. Ellington didn't compose like other composers, and you got into it a bit before.

I want to dig in a little bit more. Clark Terry in your book said that Ellington was, quote, a compiler of deeds and ideas with a great facility to make something out of what could possibly or would possibly be nothing. Talk about that, Terry. And he didn't give his guys, at least it seems to me, nearly enough credit. It's something that guys like Frank Sinatra always did, was thank Gordon Jenkins and thank the writers, the Harold Orlins and the Gershwins.

Talk about all of that, if you could. To put it in the nastiest possible way, Duke Ellington was a credit hog. He's not the only genius who was.

Orson Welles was exactly the same kind of credit hog, and their creative processes were quite strikingly similar. Ellington was not like a classical composer. A classical composer is somebody who sits down at the piano if he uses a piano to compose, and he writes a piece of music and then he brings it to the orchestra or the opera company or the string quartet, and they perform it. Maybe he revises it, but basically what he wrote is what they perform. Ellington didn't compose that way because he didn't have the technical grounding that you get from classical training. In the early years, he also had a band full of people, some of whom were very poor sight readers, and Ellington himself, as we said, was not a good sight reader. But Ellington had an interesting deficiency as a composer. He did not have the knack of tunefulness. He wasn't good at writing singable melodies.

When you're leading a dance band, and to a great extent your success is reliant on pieces in song form that can become hits, it can become an impediment to your writing. On the other hand, he had put together a band full of hand-picked musicians picked by him. These highly original, idiosyncratic musicians, who were often quite difficult to work with, he spent a fair amount of time bailing people out of jail and getting them out of trouble. And the reason why he did this was because they inspired him, not just in that generalized sense of, oh, what a great artist, he makes me want to write better. He was with them every night, every day, on the road at the Cotton Club, and they were constantly improvising.

And some of them, Johnny Hodgers in particular, were extraordinarily good at making up melodies and melodic fragments, and Ellington was listening. And he would write them down. What he liked to do best was, if you played a snatch of melody that he liked, he'd buy it from you for cash on the spot. And of course, what he was buying was the total rights to this.

He was buying publishing rights, he was buying credit, the whole thing. Jazz musicians don't tend to think ahead about this kind of thing, you know? They play it, they toss it off, they've got a million of them. If Duke likes this piece, he'll buy it.

Okay, fine, you know, I'll take 25 bucks for it. And then he turns it into a song. And not infrequently, the song would become a hit.

Almost without exception, the famous songs. I'm not talking about the compositions. The melodies came from the musicians, not from him. What would usually happen is that they would play eight bars that stuck in his head, he'd buy it. He'd add a bridge, he'd harmonize it, he'd turn it into a composition, he'd record it. At a later stage, he might have somebody put lyrics to it.

And unless the musician had been very shrewd about retaining rights, all of the proceeds from that hit went to Ellington. So the process, it's not right to call it plagiarism. That word simply doesn't apply here. Something more complicated is going on. It is a collective process of composition.

He didn't like to talk about this aspect of his compositional process, and you can see why. There's a certain kind of genius who wants you to think that he does everything equally well. Ellington was that kind of genius. Four NFL teams, two conference championship games, and only a few more shots to win big on the playoffs with DraftKings Sportsbook, an official sports betting partner of the NFL. Counting down to Super Bowl 57, new customers can bet just $5 and get $200 in free bets instantly. Download the DraftKings Sportsbook app and use promo code TIMER. New customers can bet $5 on the conference championships and get $200 in free bets instantly. Only at DraftKings Sportsbook with promo code TIMER.

21 and over in most eligible states, but age varies by jurisdiction. Eligibility restrictions apply. See DraftKings.com sportsbook for details and state specific responsible gambling resources. Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER.

In New York, call 877-8HOPE-NY or text HOPE-NY467369. Void in Ohio and Ontario. Bonus issued as free bets. One boost per eligible game. Deposit, parlay, and wagering restrictions apply.

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Learn more about their clean standards and shop clean at Sephora beauty at sephora.com. This segment is sponsored by Novo Nordisk. Weight loss. It's a constant cycle.

Am I right? It feels like our bodies are working against us, pushing back on our progress. We lose weight and our bodies try to gain it right back. Sure, losing weight is challenging, but keeping the weight off is just as hard. In fact, people with excess weight generally make seven serious attempts at weight loss.

Seven, but guess what? It's not all our fault and we have the science to back it up. One study shows that by partnering with healthcare providers, it may be possible to lose up to five times as much weight compared to trying to do it solo. Together, you can develop a plan to manage your weight and the impact of weight related health issues like high blood pressure and type two diabetes. Talk to a healthcare provider and ask if FDA approved medicine could help with losing weight and maintaining the results.

Learn more about the science behind the weight loss at truthaboutweight.com. We continue here with our American stories and Terry Teachout on the life of Duke Ellington. We've been discussing up till now a very complicated character. Let's talk about his secret because he kept a lot, Terry. Ellington was a person who liked to keep his private life very private and he had good reasons for that. He was living with mistresses throughout pretty much the whole of his adult life, even though he remained married to the woman he married back in the 20s.

He was leading the life of a voluptuary. He was leading a life that would have scandalized many people had they heard about it. I think this habit of secrecy spread outward to his whole life. He certainly wanted to keep his compositional process secret because there were aspects of it that were trade secrets and there were other aspects of it that I think he would have found embarrassing, the fact that he was much more a collaborative artist than he cared for the public to realize. When you get into the habit of keeping secrets, whether you're an artist or a spy, it's something that can really spread throughout every aspect of your personality and I think that's what it was with Duke. He just got into the habit of not telling people the truth.

It was easier to manipulate them that way. It was easier for his image to come across in the way that he wanted it to come across and by the end of his life, he'd been doing it for so long that it was simply his custom. Indeed, and I sensed as I read the book and all through the book that I'm not sure if Duke knew whether he was telling the truth or not. Well, I think with some of his set pieces, he may well have forgotten how they got their origins when he would tell stories about how he wrote a particular piece of music, stories that had absolutely nothing to do with the fact of the matter. It's possible that 20 years down the line, he didn't remember, but also bear in mind that he was telling these stories to keep his privacy, to keep secrets and when you're doing it for a reason, you tend to know what the truth is because the truth is what you're trying not to tell people.

Let's talk about In a Sentimental Mood. Talk about that song because there was the Ellington story of how it was written and then perhaps the more truthful one. Yes, he had his little tale for that one, as he often did for the really popular numbers. If memory serves, he claimed to have written it when he had a woman sitting, two different women, one sitting on either end of the piano bench with him, and he wrote that song on the spot to get over with both of the ladies. That's a lovely tale.

He's not beyond it. Something like that might conceivably have happened, but he left out the most important part, which is that the melody of the song came from somebody else. It came from Otto Hardwick, the lead saxophone player of the band. So if he was composing that song on the spot to get over with the two ladies, he was composing it with somebody else's tune. That's a very characteristic form of Ellingtonian obfuscation, I would say. And yet, many of the songs that he wrote, he had these little vignettes about what the songs meant, or how they got written. And when somebody has that kind of habit, again, it's telling you something. In Ellington's case, it's telling us something that we know about him in other ways as well, which is that his music is profoundly autobiographical.

So it stands to reason that he would like to make up these little fables, because whether they were true or not, they did speak to a larger truth, which is that something like that was the way his mind worked. Let's talk about his London trip, because it was an important one. His two-week run at the Palladium shocked him and his band. He said this was a night that scared the devil out of the whole band.

The applause was so terrifying. It was applause beyond applause, Ellington said. Talk about that London experience, because it was a real boost to both he and his bandmates. Ellington was fairly famous by the time he went to London, but he was famous in a way that a black man would be famous in America in the 30s, a way that is somewhat limited to the whole racial caste system in this country, meant that he was not seen as an artist, but as an entertainer, even though he saw himself as an artist. So he goes over to London, and suddenly, very suddenly, that opening night suddenly, he completely overwhelms an audience that has never heard his band live.

They've never heard anything like this. There had been some jazz played in Europe, but the Ellington band was, I think, peculiarly well-designed to appeal to an unusually wide range of critics and aficionados in London at that time, because it was a kind of orchestra that played not just improvised solos, but good compositions. So you had a whole lot of classical musicians of real distinction over there who were quite stunned by it and who insisted, when they wrote about it, that it was in its way equivalent to the best classical music that was coming out of America. That was a very, very big thing for a black man to hear and to be told at that time.

This was a man who, at this point in his life, was going from gig to gig in private cars on a train, which sounds very fancy when I say it, but he did that because you couldn't get a hotel in the South if you were black. And suddenly, he goes to London and he's being treated like a kind of prince, like the genius that he was, and he is also able to stay in the best hotels. It's the total experience of going into this larger, freer world that overwhelmed him at a time when he really needed this kind of creative spurt. It thrilled him. No matter how gifted you are, you need praise.

No matter how gifted you are, you need to be complimented, you need success, you need people to tell you what you're doing is worthwhile. And if you're a black man in America in the 30s, you need a lot of that because you're dealing with a whole lot of evil and foolishness. And he goes over there and this happens to him. And he comes back with his account full of the coin of praise, intelligent praise, thoughtful praise.

He lived off that for a very long time. And he also said this about staying in a real luxury hotel in England. He said, you know, I love this place. I don't know if you realize this, but I have the utmost difficulty staying in a hotel like this in the United States.

And Terry, that just broke my heart. It really hit home. Can't you hear him saying that in the elegant, urbane voice of his to say, I have the utmost difficulty staying in a hotel like this in the United States. And he's trying to say it with a wry smile, but he's kidding on the square. He means it.

He means it. And it seems to me, Terry, that there is a lot of masking going on here. Talk about that, because it's such a big part of Ellington's life and it's such a painful part. Well, this is, when we were talking earlier about how Ellington spoke to conceal himself, I think one of the things that he didn't want people to see was the hurt. He wanted them to feel that he was above such things, wouldn't you? If you were somebody like Duke Ellington, you'd been raised by him, you'd been raised by your mother to believe in the doctrine of Ellingtonian exceptionalism. And you go out in the world and you start to have great success and people write magazine articles about you.

But you go down South and they treat you the same way that they treat every other person who has a black skin. You know that hurts. Of course he concealed it. He had to conceal it. He concealed it behind the mask of urbanity.

He didn't want people to know that they got his goat. And for good reason, you've been listening to Terry Teachout on the life of Duke Ellington. And my goodness, this book, Duke, you can get it at Amazon, folks.

I couldn't put it down. My poor wife had to lose me for a few days, and that's on you, Terry. When we come back, more with Terry Teachout and the life of Duke Ellington.

This is our American Stories. We'll be right back. We'll be right back.

This segment is sponsored by Novo Nordisk. It's a constant cycle, am I right? It feels like our bodies are working against us, pushing back on our progress. We lose weight and our bodies try to gain it right back. Sure, losing weight is challenging, but keeping the weight off is just as hard. In fact, people with excess weight generally make seven serious attempts at weight loss.

Seven, but guess what? It's not all our fault, and we have the science to back it up. One study shows that by partnering with healthcare providers, it may be possible to lose up to five times as much weight compared to trying to do it solo. Together, you can develop a plan to manage your weight and the impact of weight-related health issues, like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Talk to a healthcare provider and ask if FDA-approved medicine could help with losing weight and maintaining the results.

Learn more about the science behind the weight loss at truthaboutweight.com. And we continue with our American stories and our in-depth look at the life of Duke Ellington. He was born in 1899 in Washington, D.C. Terry, the big band scene dried up after World War II. Musical taste has always come and go. And Ellington lost a lot of steam, but he gained a lot of it back after the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

Talk about this important gig. If you like stories, this is one of the best of all possible Ellington stories. What happened in 1956? The Ellington band had gone through this protracted decline.

It had lost important personnel, things had become increasingly difficult. But Ellington started to get a handle on things in 1956. He stabilized the personnel of the band, and he hired a drummer, Sam Woodyard, who really suited that band.

That was a pretty hard band to pull sometimes. And Woodyard, he was not a polished artist, but he had the energy and the forthrightness that could really put wheels under the Ellington band. The critics started to notice this. The press started to notice this. Time magazine noticed this, and they got interested in maybe doing a big story about Ellington, maybe doing a comeback story that would go on the cover.

But you don't get on the cover of Time back then unless you had a news hook. This is where Ellington got very, very lucky. By 1956, the Newport Jazz Festival had become a big deal in American jazz. George Wein was the man who put it together, and he was quite reluctant to bring Ellington in, because although he admired Ellington, everybody in jazz did, he thought that Ellington was kind of yesterday's news. So a deal was struck between Wein and George Avakian, the great record producer at Columbia, and Ellington. Ellington agreed to compose a new composition that will be named after the festival, the Newport Jazz Festival Suite, and Columbia agrees to record it live at the 1956 festival.

So the deal was struck. They sign it, Ellington and the band comes in, and the Ellington band was full of extremely temperamental people. Almost half the band didn't show up for the rehearsal. They were very bad about rehearsing pieces.

Ellington was very bad about getting pieces written on time so that they could be rehearsed. So they come in for this gig, and everybody knows it's a big deal. It's a huge deal. Ellington's reputation could rest on this. And the temperamental gentleman of the Ellington band foul up the rehearsal. Well, everybody is really anxious about this. And they go on that night, and they play the Newport Jazz Festival Suite.

And it's all right, but it wasn't anything great. The band's kind of all over the place. George Wein, no doubt, is sitting in a seat thinking, oh boy, did I make a mistake. And at this point, Duke Ellington dealt himself a handful of aces. He had a tenor saxophone player in the band named Paul González, not a refined player any more than Sam Woodyard was refined.

But boy could he blow, and he really liked to blow the blues. And Ellington had been, he'd taken a piece out of his book from the 30s called, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, which was a six minute piece consisting of blues choruses and different keys. And in the middle of it, Ellington had started to insert what he called a wailing interval, which would just be González standing up in front of the rhythm section and playing the blues for as long as he wanted to play it.

And he tried this out on the road, and it was having good effects, and he thought, well, okay, I've got to do something here because otherwise we're going to screw this gig up. So he calls Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, kicks it off, and we can hear all this because of course it was recorded, and suddenly the band is shifted into high gear. González comes down front, and he plays 27 straight choruses of the blues, and the crowd goes not just wild, but they were dancing, they were yelling and screaming.

And Ellington's up there playing piano, he's in hog heaven, he knows that he's got this going. The rhythm section is blazing, González drives everybody absolutely into a frenzy, the band comes back in and plays the piece out, and the phrase, they stopped the show, is often used in exaggeration in my business as a theater critic. But believe me, they stopped that show. They stopped it cold.

They stopped it so cold that they couldn't get any other group on, and that they had to bring Johnny Hodges on to play one of his specialties, Slow Blues, just to calm everybody down. And they got it all on tape. So Time magazine, they're in ecstasy. Suddenly they realize they've got a story, and they put Duke Ellington on the cover.

This guy who had thought had been thought to be over the hill. Meanwhile, Columbia releases Ellington at Newport, and it becomes an instant success with this long, long, long version of D'Aminuendo in a Crescendo in Blue. And suddenly, Duke Ellington was not yesterday's news anymore, he was on the cover of Time magazine, which in 1956 was the biggest possible deal for any artist in terms of public recognition. And for the rest of the fifties and well into the sixties, the Ellington band lived off the publicity and the boost in their reputation that came from this amazing gig, an opportunity that they came within inches of letting slip through their fingers.

Indeed. Let's talk about recognition. The Pulitzer Prize, it's something that haunted Ellington.

Why? The Pulitzer Prize for Music was organized to recognize classical composers. It doesn't have to be given in any given year. And in 1965, the music panel decided that there had been no piece of classical music, no individual piece that was worthy of the prize. They decided instead to recommend to the board that Ellington be presented with a special citation for long-term achievement. But in 1965, the board high-hats him.

He doesn't deserve the award. Now Ellington handled himself with colossal elegance. He was on the road, he was actually down in Kentucky, and a reporter said, do you have any comment? And Ellington said, and again imagine this in that urbane voice of his, he said, fate's being kind to me.

Fate doesn't want me to be too famous, too young. Well that's all very well and good, but in fact it just cut him to the quick. And he was outraged. He was angry, but he was angry because it hurt. This was something that, especially in the 60s, when, remember, rock has become big in the 60s, and the energy that Ellington got from the firing of the afterburners in 1956 is now starting to dispel.

Suddenly tastes in popular music are changing greatly. He had all sorts of reasons for wanting that kind of recognition that being the first jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize would have brought him, and he didn't get it. I don't think he ever quite got over that.

It's not the sort of thing that a man like Duke Ellington would have gotten over. And it's just too damn bad, because, you know, he was bigger than any prize. He was bigger than any award, but he was human. He was only human.

You can only take so much hurt, and that got him. It got him where he lived. Let's talk about the Medal of Freedom, because he did get that, but that's more of a political award. It's not the Pulitzer. But he got that in 69.

Did that help? Richard Nixon was president in 1969. He wasn't a jazz buff, but he actually did like music and knew something about it. And he had assistants in his office who knew a lot about it. And it was thought that, for whatever reason, it was thought that giving Ellington the Medal of Freedom in 1969 was not only something that he deserved, but that something that would be, shall we say, politic. And no matter what your politics are, and there were a lot of people who hated Richard Nixon in 1969, just as there are now, but he was the president. And this was a very big deal.

A very big deal. Ellington accepted with the utmost delight. They had the most amazing party. Richard Nixon actually played Happy Birthday for Duke on piano that night. There are a lot of press accounts of the party. And every time you read about it, you thought, oh boy, I would have liked to have been there.

But could it possibly have been as good as they said it was? Let's talk about the end of Duke Ellington's life, Terry. What happened?

And what do you think is his lasting legacy? He got sick at a time when the money was running out. And it got harder and harder to book the Ellington band. And Ellington was worn out.

It's so sad. And of course, what it was, was cancer. Duke knew what he had.

Nobody was trying to hide it from him. To see film of those last appearances, there was a TV tribute that Quincy Jones produced, and you can see film of Ellington. He looks old. He looks old and tired and sad. And then it was all gone. We've talked a lot about the flaws in his personality.

You cannot help but be struck by how unattractive certain aspects of it are. He was an opportunist. He was unscrupulous. I don't know that he was a man I would have wanted to work for. But if you worked for him, you were working for a genius. He was a giant. That is exactly what he was. And you've been listening to Terry Teachout on the astounding life of Duke Ellington, American composer and visionary, and what a complicated life, as Terry said, the life of an absolute giant in American music and jazz.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-26 04:23:21 / 2023-01-26 04:41:51 / 19

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